Grit: The X-Factor for your success

If someone was to describe you, which of these three words would you like them to use: talented, intelligent or gritty? We are familiar with the first two adjectives. They are often used to praise someone who is successful or accomplished. But, what about the third...what does it mean to be gritty?

Grit is a character trait that can be learned and mastered just like a skill. The best way to define it comes from the pioneering researcher it the field, Angela Duckworth PhD. She explains it as “passion and perseverance for long term goals”. It is that X-factor that pushes people to work hard towards their goals and to show hardiness in the face of adversity. Gritty people keep their eyes on the prize. They are passionate about their work and apply consistent effort towards their long term goals. Really long term goals. The once that may take years to accomplish. However, they aren’t necessarily the smartest guys in the room. Since grit is a non-cognitive trait, it is not correlated to IQ. It’s not related to talent either. According to Duckworth’s studies, grit has outperformed talent and/or smarts. In a group of people, no matter if they are seventh grade math students or West Point military academy cadets, the ones who rise to the top are not the smartest ones or the most talented ones. The people who show the greatest amount of progress and success are the ones that regularly show up for the work. When they face challenges or make mistakes, their response isn’t to flee, but to keep going. Another component of grit is the need for feedback. Gritty people don’t need immediate positive feedback regarding their short term achievements. They are playing the long game. They are willing to do the necessary work regardless of praise or external accolades.

It should be noted that grit is not about working yourself to death just before the deadline, or sudden and short bursts of inspiration and passion. The key is consistent effort. Rolling up our sleeves and showing up day after day. At times grit has been used interchangeably with self-control. Even though they are closely related, they exist on different time scales. For example, imagine that you have just started a fitness plan. Self-control is what will help you resist the temptation of a cookie, and make you go for the baby carrot instead. On the other hand, grit is what will guide you in sticking to your fitness plan for months, even years. Until you get in the shape you want to be in. Many successful people, from star athletes to innovative entrepreneurs, have demonstrated this characteristic. However, even though girt is an important indicator of success, lack of it should not be pointed out as the sole indicator of failure. The influence of social, financial and institutional obstacles should not be negated. When we look at success stories we should learn from the demonstration of grit, but also be mindful of the context.


Grit and the growth mindset

So how can we become grittier? Telling someone (yourself included) “you can do it” when they are staring at a giant obstacle, is a welcomed encouragement, but not a solution. What we need to do instead, is shift our perspective on the way we see obstacles and mistakes. Here’s where the growth mindset comes into play. It refers to the belief that our abilities and potential are not fixed. We always have the opportunity to learn and improve, if we put effort and time into it. Adopting this world view for ourselves encourages us to try new things, face challenges and pursue continuous progress. How much we grow in our desired fields is all up to us. This also affects how we react when faced with difficulties and failures. We are not discouraged by them. They are just opportunities to learn and gain a new experience. Neuroscientists refer to this as neuroplasticity. It is the brain’s ability to change and form new connections as we try to learn new things. And the driver behind this ability is your effort. Nothing can be achieved without doing the necessary work. Gritty people understand this all too well.

Let’s contrast this with the fixed growth mindset. It’s characterized by the belief that our learning ability is fixed. Our growth is limited by our IQ or talent, and hard work can’t change that. From this stance mistakes and difficulties can be a deteriorating experience. They are not seen as learning opportunities. They remind us, and the world, how limited our potential is. So when we encounter them we just tell ourselves that we are not smart enough or good enough. We just don’t have what it takes to overcome them and accomplish our goal. What a grim why to look at ourselves this is.

So, knowing what you know now, let me ask you again. If someone was to describe you, which of these three words would you like them to use: talented, intelligent or gritty? Has your answer changed?


Dig a little deeper into the research behind this post:

Grit: Sustained Self Regulation in the Service of Superordinate Goals, Lauren Eskreis-Winkler-University of Pennsylvania, James J. Gross-Stanford University, Angela L. Duckworth-University of Pennsylvania

Self-Control and Grit: Related but Separable Determinants of Success, James J. Gross-Stanford University, Angela L. Duckworth-University of Pennsylvania

Angela Duckworth Grit Q&A

After watching this, your brain will not be the same - Lara Boyd, TEDxVancouver

The power of believing that you can improve - Carol Dweck, TED